Self-guided Exploration of Anasazi Clff Dwellings & Rock Art (Part 1)
by Joseph A. Sprince – Photography by Gerald B. Allen
Introduction to Grand Gulch Primitive Area
Grand Gulch is one of a network of sandstone canyons draining southeast Utah’s Cedar Mesa, which is rich in beautiful scenery as well as the cultural remnants of the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) civilization. Grand Gulch Primitive Area, encompassing the main canyon and its network of tributaries, is especially rich in rock art and small cliff dwellings and other stone structures. These canyons and its artifacts are open to the public and left in a natural and unsupervised state.
Visitors are free to hike and explore throughout the canyons. Grand Gulch meanders 52 miles from the top of Cedar Mesa to the San Juan River. There are also many miles of interesting side canyons. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) literature describes some of the major ruin and rock art sites but most are undocumented. Visitors enjoy the unique excitement of making their own discoveries in hidden alcoves and side canyons.
The Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) people occupied Cedar Mesa including Grand Gulch from about the third century through the thirteenth century, AD. The earliest Precolumbian native Americans here were known as the Basketmakers and occupied the area from about 200-700 AD. These people were noted for their finely woven blankets, bags, and sandals. They lived in non-stone shelters known as “pit houses”, the remnants of which are extremely rare. However Basketmaker rock art is quite abundant in Grand Gulch.
The Ancestral Pueblo people started to become proficient in the construction of stone buildings around the 9th or 10th century, AD, known as the Pueblo II era. Most of the pottery here – shards of which can still be found in the canyons – dates from the Pueblo eras as well. The earliest stone structures in Grand Gulch are dated to about 1060 AD. Prior to that, the people may have retreated from Cedar Mesa due to a series of droughts. The Pueblo culture flourished here until about 1270 AD when the entire region was largely abandoned.
Visiting Grand Gulch
Hiking Grand Gulch is an excellent opportunity to view pueblo ruins, ancient rock art, and small artifacts such as pottery shards and corn cobs in a comletely natural and unsupervised setting, and enjoy a scenic canyon at the same time. Few people backpack the entire length. One option is to place a second vehicle at Collins Wash, an exit point about 36 miles downstream. This allows a 4-6 day trip with no backtracking. A shorter plan is to enter via Kane Gulch, the main trailhead off of Utah-261, hike downstream to Bullet Canyon, then upstream back to Utah-261. This is a distance of 23 miles, perhaps a 3 day hike. A second vehicle would again be required, as it’s a long walk back to Kane Gulch. For a long day hike, enter via Kane Gulch, hike to the junction with Grand Gulch, then return upstream the way you came. There are some points of interest (Turkey Pen Ruin, Stimper Arch) about a mile downstream from the junction. If you include these, the round trip would be about 10 miles.
The BLM requires permits for both day use and overnight use. The permits are fee-based, and there are daily limits. There is a reservation system for permits. Stock is permitted, as are leashed dogs. There are numerous regulations because the area is so fragile. The most important rules are do not vandalize the sites and take nothing but pictures! Leave the artifacts for the next person to enjoy. Download the “Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch Travel Planner” or contact the BLM field office in Monticello (phone: 435-587-1510) for complete and current information on permits (policy on reservations or daily limits could change). Grand Gulch is one of canyon country’s best opportunities to combine history and scenery. Hiking the canyon is moderately strenuous and requires a little route finding to know where you are.
The Rediscovered Journal
I recently found the following journal which describes in detail our backpacking trip to Grand Gulch Primitive Area in 1985. Additional comments are added in [brackets], including a discussion of the rock art. The narrative inside Grand Gulch itself starts below on Saturday, May 4.
Thursday, May 2, 1985. We depart L.H. at lunchtime, the truck filled to the brim. We stop at Las Vegas about 6pm and eat a buffet dinner at the Sands Hotel. It is very warm, in the mid-90s. After dinner, we continue north on I-15 and stop for the night at the Virgin River gorge campground [south of St. George, Utah]. The campground is new and developed, away from the highway, and sparsely used. With the mild temperatures, running water, full moon, and steep-walled canyon, the night is memorably pleasant.
Friday, May 3, 1985. We push on at 4am via St. George, Pipe Springs, Kanab, and Page, Arizona [I-15, then UT-9 east to Hurricane, UT-59 and AZ-389 east to Fredonia, US-89a to Kanab, then US-89 east to Page]. We stop at the Holiday Inn in Page for breakfast. Thirty years ago, Page didn’t exist. Then on through the Navajo Reservation [AZ-98, US-160 east to Kayenta, then US-163 north]. We stop to take the self-guided auto tour through Monument Valley Tribal Park. Many of the famous monuments and vistas are visible from the dirt road which is steep and rough at first, going down into a valley. We stop for a picnic at a fantastic vista point with a huge view. The weather is deteriorating and enhances the view with clouds and showers in the distance. Fearful of getting stuck in a storm on the rough dirt road, we hurry to finish the tour and continue on to our destination for the night, the small campground at Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah.
En route we encounter a fierce but momentary thunderstorm. It’s fortunate to be brief because we approach another section of dirt road, marked as the “Moki Dugout” on the map [UT-261, from US-163]. The road switchbacks steeply up sheer-walled Cedar Mesa which towers 1,000 feet or more over the desert. The views are fabulous climbing this cliff, especially the huge vistas of the monoliths in the Valley of the Gods far below.
Upon reaching the top of the mesa the environment is completely different: cooler, moist, and heavily wooded. We stop at the BLM’s Kane Gulch ranger station [on UT-261]. Kane Gulch is the main trailhead for most trips into Grand Gulch. No one is there but I read the posted literature. There are numerous cars in the parking lot indicating numerous hikers in the canyon.
We arrive at Natural Bridges National Monument [from UT-261, a few miles west on UT-95. The monument features three natural stone bridges, carved by river meanders in sandstone canyons.] and select a campsite. The sites are secluded, wooded, and very nice. I stop by the visitor center to talk about Grand Gulch with the ranger and end up having a long discussion about hiking in canyon country. I return to the campground which has quickly filled up, and we rush to eat dinner and get the backpacks ready. The weather is becoming stormy again.
Saturday, May 4, 1985. I wake up to a warm, clear morning with a brilliant near-full moon. We’re scheduled to meet our ride at 7am. Our driver is Charlie Delorame, owner of the Wild River guide company out of Bluff, Utah. His main business is running rafting trips on the San Juan River but he also gives people rides. I will follow him in our truck to Collins Spring, our exit point for the hike, 38 miles from the Kane Gulch trailhead. The last six miles is on a scenic rocky dirt road (UT-260, off of UT-276). If it rains hard, it might be difficult to get out with our [two-wheel drive vehicle].
We leave the truck at Collins Spring, and then join Delorame in his van for the ride to the [Kane Gulch] trailhead. We talk at length about his career and the outdoors. At the ranger station, we register [permits are now required] and get some tips from the ranger, and then we’re off.
Heading down Kane Gulch, there are a few uneasy ups and downs descending into the canyon. There are several pretty cascades in the area, and the canyon walls reach a height of perhaps 400 feet. There are many other parties here and quite a few people with dogs.
Just after lunch, we reach the junction of Kane Gulch and Grand Gulch, four miles from the trailhead. The first major ruin site is found here and appropriately named Junction Ruin. There is also a large wooded area that looks ideal for camping. Apparently, the junction is the destination for many of the other hikers, and the traffic on the trail thins out substantially heading downstream. [A popular day hike continues downstream another mile to Turkey Pen Ruin and Stimper Arch, then returning to the trailhead, about ten miles of walking round trip.]
Junction Ruin is located at the base of a huge alcove on the north side of the canyon. Most Anasazi ruins are similarly situated. The alcove provides shelter, and the southern exposure provides the warmth of the sun during the winter. The main group of ruins is at the base of the overhang, perhaps 50 to 75 feet above the creek. There are a few more ruins in the next higher crevice, 50 feet above the alcove. These are totally inaccessible without climbing equipment or ladders and were perhaps defensive positions.
An exciting aspect of the ruins is the substantial number of artifacts lying about – pottery shards, cutting chips, corncobs, and a few grinding stones. There is nothing large or intact, but in most popular sites [“tourist” ruins, such as at Mesa Verde National Park] there’s nothing at all. The presence of artifacts heightens the sense of discovery and makes the place come alive. [Anecdotally, there are far fewer artifacts lying around in 2006 than in 1985.]
The weather seems to be deteriorating again so we push on to our day’s destination, Todie Canyon [mile 7.2], another three miles downstream. We pass Turkey Pen Ruin – smaller than Junction Ruin, Stimper Arch, a couple of pretty pools and small waterfalls, then finally reach Todie Canyon. This side canyon is extremely lush with a running stream; it’s even swampy in places. We find an excellent campsite about a quarter mile up canyon, totally sheltered by large cottonwoods on a bench above the stream and level with soft soil.
The first day is always the most painful, and it is bliss to lie down for a while. The weather improves a bit, and there’s a small ruin upstream to check out. The mosquitoes are kind of bad here but our repellent is effective. We eat heartily and are quite comfortable but I sleep very poorly.
(Continue to Page 2 – Rock Art in Grand Gulch)